• Joanna

In Search of Substance

Updated: Jun 17

For the amount of years I took French in school, I am appalled at how horrendous my ability to speak and understand the language actually is. I not only studied French for 5 years, I excelled in French. It was always one of the only redeeming features on my report card. There weren’t many things worth praising in my scholastic career, but French was one of them. I even participated in a 2-week exchange program with Quebec, in grade 10.


There wasn’t a word I didn’t know… not a song I couldn’t sing.

Now I’m stumped when people ask my name.

I go completely blank.

"Deer in the headlights" blank.


Shame on me for not keeping up with it.

Double shame on me for not refreshing before my trip.


“… apologies to all of you who have had to repeat yourselves or endure patiently, as I butcher your beloved language. Please know I appreciate how much you appreciate how much we try, but I feel it imperative to remain silent for the duration of this journey, as to not humiliate myself further…”


Our crack addiction has officially come to an end and we managed to escape the halfway house. We have left behind poor insulation, a lack of lavatory ventilation, the world’s smallest elevator, lumpy pillows, slamming doors, crying babies and 88 stairs behind… and moved on…

Gard du Nord train station was a mere ten minutes away, and we decided to endure the liquid elements and make our way there, on foot. The subway seemed a little convoluted, Uber, a slight waste of money… and despite the rubbish weather, we were perfectly capable of walking.


We made it without melting… ever-so slightly more damp than we’d been when we set out, but we made it. Gard du Nord is the true scene of travel chaos, and we were no exception to the rule in regards to temporary disorientation. With its multitude of levels and excessive amount of lettered & numbered gates, it’s no wonder people get lost and/or miss their train.


This was the location of my first arrival into France, back in 2007. I remember arriving off the EuroStar, and despite my overpowering jet lag, was whisked away into the city’s embrace.


When we had successfully found our train, and boarded with the confidence that we were, indeed, hopefully headed in the right direction, we were able to breathe a sigh of relief. But… travel anarchy was not far behind us, and managed to catch up with us at the airport. With three enormous terminals, Charles de Gaulle is one of the biggest and busiest airports in Europe… and although it might be simple to find your departure gate, it was not as easy to find car rentals.

Our car pickup was set for 10:30am… and we were already running late. Lost, confused and completely disorientated in this massive terminal, we were bound to be even later. Regardless of how many inquiries we made, there was always another direction to be sent in.


Finally we found it. Budget Rentals. Once there, it was a simple process.

Kinda.

Not really.


The guy behind the counter took my credit card, charged me an exorbitant fee and then handed me keys. He pointed into the parking lot, at a lone structure tucked away amid a sea of vehicles, and told me to speak to the man standing in there.


Ok. Seemed easy enough.

We loaded up our belongings and headed outside.


When we reached the attendant outside, he thought we were returning a car, because the first guy hadn’t given us a ticket to exit the lot. Back in to sort things out… as usual.

Once that was rearranged, we were given a mini Fiat. When I say mini, I mean it in the most literal way. My knees were knocking against the wheel and my head was mere inches from the roof.


The guy had offered us a complimentary vehicle upgrade, but I had declined due to increased additional insurance coverage, as well as increased fuel costs.

Dumb move.


Oh well, you get what you pay for… and if I had to suffer two weeks crammed into a tiny clown car, then so be it.


As soon as we had loaded our luggage, I turned on the navigational system. After experiencing one month in Costa Rica, lost in the jungle without cell coverage or wifi, I was determined not to leave the parking lot without GPS. The gentleman had mentioned to ensure it was installed before driving off, and if it was missing, he would exchange our vehicle for another. I should’ve just insisted on another, right there and then. I know enough about my luck well to know nothing is ever how it should be when I travel. Of course, no GPS… and we had to go through the entire rigmarole of removing our belongings and carting them back into the office in order to be assigned another rental.


Ahhhh, my luck and the power of inconvenience.


I should shut my mouth though, as the next car allowed me both leg and head room… so life has a mysterious way of working out.

GPS proved instrumental from the moment we turned it on, as I have no idea how I would’ve navigated my way out of that airport labyrinth without it. I love Aunty Lin, but she is not exactly an ideal co-pilot when it comes to maps or route assistance.


Au revoir, Paris!

First stop… Giverny.


Giverny… a small village, north of Paris, in the Normandy Region. This was the home of impressionist painter, Claude Monet. Giverny is also now famous for having no food, as we were soon to discover.


I can’t make this shit up…


From the moment of arrival, it was exceedingly difficult to find our accommodation. Odd, considering how tiny the hamlet was. Turns out, our guest house was located down a narrow and blockaded lane. The kind lady, Francis, came out and used a special FOB to repress the bollard and grant us entry.


Parfait… but… how do we get out now?


Her English was minimal… our French was atrocious… and the conversation merely resulted in gracious smiles and an abundance of bewildered nods.

We were hungry to explore Monet’s town, and even hungrier for something to nibble on, as our stomachs were beginning to growl. Francis had attempted to make a reservation at the nearby hotel restaurant, but her phone call only resulted in endless ringing. She attempted to point out other nearby cafés, but we were fairly confident we would be able to find something. Looking back, I laugh at how naive we were.


There was nothing.


Actually that is a lie. There was a restaurant at the Monet museum, but I suspect it was closed. I believe they only let us in because we looked so desperately hangry. We split a burger and the bill arrived at our table shortly after. It was quite obviously a hint for us to vacate the premises as quickly as possible. Everything else we came across was boarded up and closed for the season. A few tourists and residents pointed us in the direction of some delusional utopia, just down the lane and around the corner, with promises of fine fare and vintage vino… but we had, quite literally, landed ourselves smack dab in the middle of Brigafoon, and it was far from coming to life.


In fact, it was a full two days away from its true heart and soul. This particular Brigadoon was set to open up on Friday… and unfortunately we were hungry on Wednesday.


It wasn’t only the restaurants that were closed. There was not a gift shop or corner store to be found. Monet’s home and garden were also boarded up until April 1st, which was a colossal disappointment. We had been looking forward to seeing the Japanese style bridge and the famous water lily pond that had served as such inspiration for the master. We had paid our dues to enter the Monet museum, but under much misconception.

Next time…!


We considered jumping in our car and venturing off to the next town, but our car was imprisoned behind insurmountable blockades. In our failed substance quest, a nice gentleman let us know the barricades would descend at 6:30pm. That was our get-out-of-jail card and we hightailed it back to break free… and hopefully eat… and drink.


Vernon was the next town, mere moments down the road.


Surprisingly enough, we encountered the same ‘low season’ problem here. Absolutely everything was closed. You could not find a restaurant to save your life. Yes, there was the occasional bar tabac, but hardly the atmosphere we were searching for. We wanted quaint and historical mixed with fabulous food, delicious wine and good cheer.


The first restaurant we entered, we were shooed away and told to come back at 7pm.


7pm?


A quick Google search educated me on the fact that many restaurants are not open at all during the day. Generally lunch service stops at 2pm and dinner service starts at 7pm.

Good to know…

Puts a bit of a damper on a late lunch or early dinner.

This information would have been very handy… yesterday. My bad. A true travel faux pas… and even more of a travel inconvenience.

We did a bit of strolling through town, marvelling in the old structures of this historical village. Just after 7pm, we returned to the original restaurant and sat ourselves down. The dining room was extravagantly set up, and probably not exactly what we had in mind for a casual dinner, but once you’ve made your way up and down every main road, back alley and cobblestone lane, in search of food, you tend to take what you can get.


And we did. Desperate times call for desperate measures.


I made the mistake of letting the server know we hadn’t eaten all day (conveniently leaving out the burger)… and she, in turn, made the mistake of thinking we were there for a full, three course meal. Menu prices kiboshed any chance of that, and she let it be known she was not impressed with our minimal orders.


I tried to order two appetizers… and she immediately took offence and set about arguing that it would absolutely not be enough. I became instantly afraid of her and just wanted to get up and leave. At one point, she wrote down both my appie orders, but when I changed my mind from originally wanting two, to only wanting one, that seemed to push her over the edge. She started manically scribbling my cheese order out. It was beyond awkward and only got more so when Aunty Lin tried to appease with the story of how we had only just recently eaten a burger.


Having only encountered the most lovely people up to this point, we were startled to have landed ourselves right into the seats of this hostile hostess. She was flippant and very much disregarded us with the flick of her wrist or by walking away mid-sentence.

We were terrified to ask for more water, let alone salt and pepper.


When we finished our appetizers, we guzzled down the last of our wine and I made my way up to the counter to pay our bill.


At my request, she looked straight through me and said, “ton fromage arrive.”


My cheese… the appetizer that she had made such a production of scribbling out, with such blatant disgust… was on its way to my table.


Ok.… And back I went…


I tried to eat my melted cheese, overly soggy bread order, but it was a little too comparable to the poignant aroma still wafting from my purse.


I couldn’t force myself to do it.

Ah, France…


Thank God for the vin….


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